The Politicization of Doctrine – Why it Happens

By Brian Knowles

In 1893, Charles Augustus Briggs, the well-known scholar of Hebrew who was responsible in part for the authoritative Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew-English Lexicon (BDB), was "defrocked" by his denomination for holding views of Scripture that differed from those of the organization’s hierarchy. One result of Briggs’ suspension was that the seminary at which he taught declared its independence from its sponsoring denomination – the one that had censured Briggs. Briggs himself stayed on as Professor of Biblical Theology. He then "took orders" with another denomination, in which he served as a clergyman until his death in 1913.

While at the seminary, Briggs wrote his own textbook for the course he taught. It was called General Introduction to the Study of Holy Scripture. The book became a classic. In 1899, Briggs revised it somewhat and publishers continued to print and offer that edition until as recently as 1970 – 57 years after Briggs’ death.

BDB is still considered by many scholars to be the most authoritative lexicon for Hebrew and Aramaic. Briggs’ contribution to Christian scholarship was both profound and lasting. But he had to pay a price for his academic objectivity.

Briggs’ story is not untypical of honest scholars everywhere. The history of the Christian Church can often be traced in the blood of its scholarly martyrs. How many died horribly for no greater crime than trying to get printed English editions of Scripture into the hands of the common people? Scientist Galileo came close to losing his life for asserting a simple scientific truth when Rome wasn’t predisposed to accept it. Tens of thousands – perhaps millions – have been tortured, imprisoned and murdered in the name of dogma throughout the history of the Church.

In his book, Briggs listed a series of "Obstacles to the Study of Holy Scripture." One of them he labeled "sectarian partisanship." He wrote, "A sin against the Bible is often committed by the indiscriminate use of proof texts in dogmatic assertion and debate. These texts are hurled against one another by zealous partisans in controversy with such differences and inconsistency of interpretation as to excite the disgust of all openminded persons. It has become a proverb that anything can be proved from the Bible."

Briggs went on to say "…the Bible was not made for ecclesiastical dogmaticians and lawyers, but for the people of God" (ibid. p. 7).

In the hands of some people, the Bible is a deadly weapon. The reason it is, is the same reason it was in the hands of hard-line Protestant leaders – doctrine and dogma have been politicized.

The Nature of Ecclesiastical Politics

Jesus taught, "You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free" (John 8:32). As one of my favorite teachers, Dr. Roy Blizzard often says, "If it’s truth, it doesn’t bring you into bondage, it sets you free." Ecclesiastical politics is less about freedom and more about following.

A word of qualification: in this context I am not using "freedom" as a euphemism for license to do evil. No Christian should consider himself or herself free to sin. The freedom I am talking about here is the kind Paul meant when he said, "…I am free and belong to no man…" (I Corinthians 9:19). Even though others had become apostles prior to his own commissioning, Paul did not view himself as part of an autocratic hierarchy controlled centrally from Jerusalem. Paul was a voluntary "slave" in service, but not to human authority.

Ecclesiastical politics, like any other kind, is about money, power, control and interests. It is often about keeping coffers full and minds empty – or at least compliant. (Even back in the 70’s, I can remember some church members saying things like, "Yeah, hand me your wallet and check your brain at the door.") Worse, it can be about protecting a "lifestyle" for an elite.

In this kind of atmosphere, "doctrine" – which merely means "teaching" – is not determined on objective grounds -- it is decided politically. As I mentioned in a previous issue of the Journal, authoritarian church hierarchies tend to reject all ideas that are not perceived to be in their interests, whether or not those ideas are true.

Those who seek to practice objective, sound, Scriptural exegesis in order to arrive at doctrinal truth often find this reality hard to live with. For the politically naïve, it is difficult to accept. For idealists, it is a profound evil.

The Politics of Dogma

"Dogma" is derived from a Greek word that originally meant "that which seems good." But it is "…now applied to…those official beliefs of a group thought to be so fundamental that to deny them is warrant for expulsion or excommunication from that body."

In most denominations of Christianity, there is a point at which teaching hardens into dogma. Once this occurs, doctrinal reform is almost impossible. Those who seek it, no matter how honestly or objectively are quickly demonized and their ideas rejected as heresy. This deleterious pattern established itself in the early years of the gentile Church, and it has reasserted itself a myriad of times since.

The tradition of dogmatic tyranny began in the Roman Church and eventually found its way into the Protestant churches. Briggs explained it this way: "…the Bible is too often used as a text-book of abstract definitions giving absolute truth. The Protestant Reformers threw aside the authority of the Church as the infallible interpreter of the Bible and refused to submit to the interpretation of the Fathers of the Church as final. They asserted the right to private judgment for themselves and others. But their successors established a Protestant rule of faith which became as tyrannical over private judgment as Roman tradition had ever been. Over against these abuses, we maintain that the Bible was not made for ecclesiastical dogmaticians and lawyers, but for the people of God" (Briggs, pp. 6 & 7).

Briggs was right. When the Bible, and a particular narrow interpretation of it, is appropriated by a given sect or denomination, and then is used as a club over the heads of those from whom compliance is sought, sound exegesis goes to the dogs. All contrary arguments, no matter how valid, are lost in a howling gale of emotional posturing, authoritarian asserting, and pejorative labeling. Truth falls, and is left behind, tattered, in the mean streets of partisanship.

As Briggs writes, "The right of private judgment is debased when partisanship determines that judgment and when sectarianism perverts it. The Bible was not given to sustain the partisan or to uphold the sect; but to teach the Truth of God and to guide in the holy life" (Briggs, p. 8),

Put another way, if the Word of God can only speak to me through the mediating filter of a sectarian interpreter, I am not free to apprehend for myself its message. The sectarian dogmatist then becomes the autocratic custodian of truth that I cannot access except through his good graces. If I suggest that anything other than what he says is truth, I find myself instantly labeled a heretic.

Briggs continues, "Ecclesiastical domination is the worst kind of domination, because it is so contrary to the ideal of the Church and the example of Christ. And yet in every generation men arise who claim to be the champions of orthodoxy and the guardians of ecclesiastical authority" (Briggs, pp. 8-9).

What we see happening in some of the Churches of God is no different than what has happened throughout the history of the Church from apostolic times to the present. It is those who "love the preeminence" (cf. III John 9) seeking to exert their wills over segments of God’s flock to their own advantage. It is the carnal "urge to power" manifesting itself in predictable, and oft repeated, patterns. It shows little concern for the welfare of the flock, but great concern for the welfare of the hierarchy.

Authoritarianism = Anti-Intellectualism

Authoritarian dogmatists often view scholars and intellectuals as a threat – unless of course they can "own" them. In many circles, such people are routinely demonized simply for existing, let alone for producing scholarly papers and products.

The great American historian Richard Hofstadter wrote, "In the first instance, anti-intellectualism must be sought out in the framework of our religious history…To the extent that it becomes accepted in any culture that religion is largely an affair of the heart or of the intuitive qualities of mind, and that the rational mind is irrelevant or worse, so far will it be believed that the rational faculties are barren or perhaps dangerous. And to the extent that a society is suspicious of a learned or professional clergy, so far will it be disposed to repudiate or deprive its intellectual class, whether religious or secular."

The most virulent anti-intellectualism is often found in the most conservative, authoritarian churches in which the hierarchy is assumed to be "inspired" from the top down. When a single, autocratic individual assumes the position of "custodian of truth," all contrary ideas, no matter how sound, are viewed with suspicion or outright opposition. To expose the top dog as being in error is to expose the phoniness of his claim to inspiration. This in turn undermines his claim to absolute authority within the sect.

Furthermore, the growth rate of the top dog determines that of those lower in the hierarchy. No one can grow in understanding at a faster rate than the "glorious leader." Consequently, if the lead man is not growing in knowledge, understanding or spirituality, the rest of the organization is also spiritually constipated. Simply by reading the pages of The Journal one can determine that some leaders in the Churches of God have frozen their understanding of doctrine at points decades in the past – at which time they felt their leader had achieved a perfect state of orthodoxy.

The Bible as a Club

Sooner or later, all authoritarian dogmatists begin to use the Bible – or at least their subjective interpretation of portions of it – as a club over the heads of their followers. Such people also use Scripture to defend unscientific, factually erroneous ideas embraced by the sectarian tyrant. Roman Catholic authorities quoted the Bible against Galileo to attack his support of the correct Copernican theory that the earth revolves around the sun.

When the followers of cult leader Jim Jones began to question his teachings on the basis of Scripture, he condemned their reading of it. Those who persisted in reading it were swiftly punished. This is the end point of authoritarian dogmatism.

When a unique, or simply erroneous, interpretation of Scripture is used by dogmatists to defend the indefensible, to support unscientific ideas, and shore up denominational distinctiveness for its own sake, true scholars are alienated. As Briggs wrote more than a century ago, "Such use of the Bible has too often the effect of driving scholars away from it, and especially the Old Testament, the most abused part of it.

"Every advance in the study of the Bible has been confronted by these enemies of the truth" (Briggs, p. 9).

This oft-repeated phenomenon helps explain the gulf that exists between Biblical scholarship and the laity of the Church. The work of the best textual and Biblical scholars seldom filters down to the level of the average church member. Planted firmly between scholars and laity are denominational hierarchies, set to preserve sectarian tradition for its own sake.

Within the universe of the Churches of God, many, if not most, of the best potential scholars have been driven out on grounds that they threatened the sacred Status Quo. Either that or they encountered the withering anti-intellectualism, suspicion, and mistrust of entrenched leadership, and left of their own accord.

The end result is that doctrinal orthodoxy and dogma are now in the hands of non-scholars who are not academically qualified to do advanced exegetical work. This explains why they are so often reduced to authoritarian posturing and hollow claims making. Many of their positional houses stand upon exegetical sand, yet they do not have the skills to recognize it.

The people of God deserve better than this.

Pursuing Truth wherever it leads

A truly honest Christian is willing to follow truth wherever it leads, no matter the consequences. At the same time, there is a price to be paid for honesty. As Charles Briggs explained, the "theological Bourbons" will "always encourage the traditionalists, and obstruct faithful Biblical scholars." Therefore, "…it is ever necessary for the friends of truth and of progress in the Church to oppose and overcome obstructionists" (Briggs, pp. 10-11).

To get at God’s "pearls of great price," one must often pass through the pain of digging up whole fields that are riddled with mines planted by those for whom objective truth is a threat. If one proceeds with hope and faith, the "…Divine Spirit leads into all the truth in spite of every obstacle erected by Christian dogmaticians and ecclesiastical assemblies" (Briggs, p. 10).

I do not claim to be a scholar, nor do I claim, as do some, to have a corner on the market of doctrinal truth. The more I learn about Scripture, the more I am dwarfed by the enormity of my own ignorance of it. I can only say that after forty years of rather intense study, I am gaining ground. The more deeply I delve into the text itself, and into Hebrew roots studies, the more profound my understanding becomes. But the process of learning will never be completed in my lifetime.

Over time, and through a lot of pain, I have learned to mistrust the intellectual integrity of church hierarchies. All too often I have found their motives to be ignoble.

And if the pseudo-scholars who attach themselves to these hierarchies have only the motive of "supporting" or "backing up" the dogmas of a supposedly "inspired" leader, they are building on a bogus foundation. The leader will accept all data that supports his foregone conclusions, and reject all that refutes them. This approach is fundamentally dishonest.

"The Bible," explains Charles Briggs, "is an honest book in all its parts, -- it is the Word of God, and every sincere disciple of wisdom will find in its pages not only the real and the highest truth, but will be stimulated and encouraged to press forward under the guidance of the Holy Spirit unto all truth" (Briggs, p. 11).

I couldn’t agree more.